PRINT April 2001

Row v. Wade

WHAT DOES AVL CREATE ON COMMISSION? Anything from study cells (Maastricht Library, 1999) to bicycle shelters (The Hague, 2000). Of all AVL's recent projects, A-Portable, 2001—a gynecological unit in a shipping container that is currently under construction at the behest of Dr. Rebecca Gomperts—best reflects van Lieshout's own preference for piracy over policy.

The founder of Women on Waves, Dr. Gomperts made headlines around the world last year with her plans to put A-Portable on a ship and operate the mobile reproductive-health clinic on the high seas. The Amsterdam-based activist intends to make first-trimester abortions available to women in countries where the procedure is illegal by performing them in international waters, twelve miles off shore and just beyond the jurisdiction of national laws.

Although Women on Waves has been likened to pirate radio stations and floating casinos, Dr. Gomperts, who served on the Rainbow Warrior II, sees the project as a cross between Greenpeace and Doctors Without Borders and emphasizes its humanitarian dimension. “The World Health Organization estimates that every year, 20 million illegal abortions cause the death of up to 100,000 women.” she notes. “Whatever one's position on abortion, it remains the most-performed medical intervention, twenty times more common than an appendectomy. Making abortion illegal does not reduce the number of procedures; it actually increases them since access to information on family planning and birth control is also restricted. And the mortality rate of women increases, too, because they are forced to obtain illegal abortions in unsanitary conditions.”

The Netherlands proves her point: The Dutch state pays for abortions as well as birth control and boasts the lowest abortion rate in the world. For Dr. Gomperts, Women on Waves brings the borders of Holland closer to women living in countries where abortion is illegal. “Once the ship is in international waters, Dutch laws prevail on board . . . In addition to first-trimester abortions. all contraceptives, counseling, education on reproductive health. and training for local practitioners will be provided free. The container will also function as a floating memorial to the women who suffer and die every year needlessly. Wherever A-Portable appears, it will make people aware of this international tragedy.”

Like van Lieshout, Dr. Gomperts believes that art should work in different contexts, and she notes that A-Portable will cross legal, medical, navigational, and aesthetic territories. She chose AVL not for its ideology, but for its exceptional designs. “For a lot of women abortion is a frightening experience, and therefore it is important not to make the room too cold and clinical. Joep is an artist who has great insight—not just into technical and functional aspects, but also into the way a space can influence people. He can make the treatment room into a friendly and comfortable space.”

With funding in place for the pilot project. Women on Waves will set sail later this year with an all-woman crew to an undisclosed location. In light of the current threat to take away the women's rights gained in Roe v. Wade, Dr. Gomperts has not ruled out future voyages to the United States. “If abortion became illegal, we would certainly consider going there, but only with the support of local women's groups.”